CIA director Leon Panetta told NBC News Tuesday that a photo proving the death of Osama bin Laden "would be presented to the public," but the comment quickly drew a response from the White House saying no decision has yet been made.
"The bottom line is that, you know, we got bin Laden and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him," Panetta said in an interview with Nightly News.
Asked by Reuters about the remarks, a White House spokesman said no decision had been made about releasing images of bin Laden dead.
The White House had earlier expressed concerns about making any death images of bin Laden public, considering the nature of his fatal wounds. U.S. officials say the still-secret photographic evidence shows a precision kill shot above his left eye, which blew away part of his skull. He was also shot in the chest, they said.
The White House said the photograph of a dead Osama bin Laden is "gruesome" and that "it could be inflammatory" if released.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the White House is mulling whether to make the photo public, but he said officials are concerned about the "sensitivity" of doing so. Carney said there is a discussion internally about the most appropriate way to handle but "there is not some roiling debate here about this."
Asked if President Barack Obama is involved in the photo discussion, Carney said the president is involved in every aspect of this issue.
Panetta said the photos leave no question that bin Laden was killed. "Obviously I've seen those photographs," he said. "We've analyzed them and there's no question that it's bin Laden."
The issue of what to do with the "death photos" of bin Laden has been debated over the past several months, as officials planned the raid on the terror chief's Pakistan compund, two U.S. officials told NBC News on Tuesday.
Neither official disclosed what the outcome of the discussions was but noted that everyone knew the ultimate decision would rest with the White House. The same official said he did not expect a decision Tuesday, but said it would not surprise him that much, NBC News reported.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials were balancing that skepticism with the sensitivities that might be inflamed by showing images and video of his burial at sea.
"We are going to do everything we can to make sure that nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden," John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, said Monday. He said the U.S. will "share what we can because we want to make sure that not only the American people but the world understand exactly what happened."
In July 2003, the U.S. took heat but also quieted most conspiracy theorists by releasing graphic photos of the corpses of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's two powerful sons to prove American forces had killed them.
So far, the U.S. has cited evidence that satisfied the Navy SEAL force, and at least most of the world, that they had the right man in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The helicopter-borne raiding squad that swarmed the luxury compound identified bin Laden by appearance. A woman in the compound who was identified as his wife was said to have called out bin Laden's name in the melee.
Officials produced a quick DNA match from his remains that they said established bin Laden's identity, even absent the other techniques, with 99.9 percent certainty. U.S. officials also said bin Laden was identified through photo comparisons and other methods.
Tellingly, an al-Qaida spokesman, in vowing vengeance against America, called him a martyr, offering no challenge to the U.S. account of his death.
The burial from an aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea was videotaped aboard the ship, according to a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because a decision on whether to release the video was not final. The official said it was highly likely that the video, along with photographs of bin Laden's body, would be made public in coming days.
Officials said bin Laden was buried at sea because it was the best option, given tight time constraints. U nder Islamic tradition, Muslims must be buried within 24 hours. Transferring the body to another country for interment could have taken too long, officials said.
"The burial of bin Laden's remains was done in strict conformance with Islamist precepts and practices," said Brennan.
The body was transported to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which brought him to his final resting place.
The U.S. military said preparations for burial began at 1:10 a.m. ET and were completed at 2 a.m. ET.
His body was washed before being covered.
His corpse was lowered toward the sea on one of the aircraft carrier's elevators.
"The body was placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker," a U.S. official said.
"After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased's body eased into the sea."
Islamic scholars, however, challenged U.S. assertions that a burial at sea was an appropriate fate for a Muslim who had died on land.
The act denied al-Qaida any sort of burial shrine for their slain leader. Once again, bin Laden had vanished, but this time at the hands of the United States and in a way that ensures he is gone forever.